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Prosecutor says Khashoggi was strangled and dismembered, but fate of body still a mystery

Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had no knowledge of the operation. The CIA's latest findings contradict that assertion. (Video: Joyce Lee, Jason Aldag, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s top prosecutor on Wednesday laid out the most detailed description yet of how the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed, saying ­Saudi agents strangled him almost immediately after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and then dismembered his body.

But the new information did not address the question that has bedeviled investigators and been the subject of furious speculation: What happened to Khashoggi’s remains?

A senior Turkish official said in an interview that Turkish authorities are pursuing a theory that Khashoggi’s dismembered body was destroyed in acid on the grounds of the Saudi Consulate or at the nearby residence of the Saudi consul general. Biological evidence discovered in the consulate garden supports the theory that Khashoggi’s body was disposed of close to where he was killed and dismembered, the official said.

“Khashoggi’s body was not in need of burying,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive investigation.

While Saudi officials now acknowledge that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate on Oct. 2, all they have said about his body is that the assailants gave it to a “local collaborator” for disposal.

The senior Turkish official said Turkish investigators do not believe such a figure exists.

A second senior Turkish official said that Saudi Arabia’s top prosecutor, Saud al-Mojeb, who completed a three-day visit to Istanbul on Wednesday, did not provide the location of Khashoggi’s body or identify any “local collaborator.”

Since Mojeb arrived in Turkey on Monday, “Saudi officials seemed primarily interested in finding out what evidence the Turkish authorities had against the perpetrators,” the Turkish official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private law enforcement contacts. “We did not get the impression that they were keen on genuinely cooperating with the investigation.”

Turkish prosecutor Irfan Fidan issued his public description of the killing shortly after Mojeb left Istanbul, amid mounting Turkish complaints about a lack of Saudi cooperation.

Fidan said Khashoggi was “strangled as soon as he entered the consulate” in line with “premeditated plans.” The body, “after being strangled, was subsequently destroyed by being dismembered, once again confirming the planning of the murder,” Fidan said.

The Turkish statement used the word “bogulmak,” which can also mean suffocation.

Turkish officials say members of a 15-man hit team dispatched from Saudi Arabia killed Khashoggi inside the consulate before flying out of Turkey later the same day. The Turkish government says it has an audio recording of what transpired inside the mission. Although Turkish officials have played the audio for CIA officials, including Director Gina Haspel, Turkish officials have not released the audio to the public.

CIA director briefs president on audio purportedly capturing the killing of Jamal Khashoggi

Saudi Arabia has provided shifting explanations about what happened to Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen, contributing columnist to The Washington Post and critic of the Saudi leadership, including the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. For more than two weeks, Saudi authorities repeatedly denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s whereabouts, then abruptly changed their account, blaming the killing on agents acting outside the Saudi government’s authority.

Turkish investigators initially focused their search for Khashoggi’s body in two wooded areas outside Istanbul, guided in part by surveillance footage that Turkish authorities said showed Saudi diplomatic vehicles apparently scouting Belgrad Forest the night before the journalist was killed.

Last week, investigators suspended the search, focusing instead on the consulate’s grounds and the consul general’s residence. The search focused in particular on a well on consular property, where the assailants could have disposed of Khashoggi’s dissolved remains, the first senior Turkish official said.

Investigators last week also inspected the sewer system near the consulate, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.

Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have repeatedly complained that Saudi Arabia is hampering the investigation by refusing to provide critical pieces of information, including the location of Khashoggi’s body. Turkey has also requested the extradition of 18 suspects who the Saudi government says have been arrested in the case. 

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the suspects will be tried in domestic courts.

On Wednesday, a Saudi official said the kingdom had not officially concluded that Khashoggi’s death was premeditated. “The public prosecutor has acknowledged seeing that information from the Turkish side. We have not said if that is true or not true. We are waiting for the results of the investigation,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the media. 

The journalist’s death and the inconsistent Saudi explanations of his killing have unleashed a storm of international criticism, placing President Trump in a difficult situation. In addition to being a major purchaser of American weapons, Saudi Arabia sits at the heart of the administration’s strategy in the Middle East, in particular U.S. efforts to counter what Washington says are Iran’s expansionist policies.

Trump has said he is “not satisfied” with the Saudi explanations of Khashoggi’s death. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has warned that the crisis could affect regional stability. But there are few indications that Khashoggi’s death will fundamentally alter the relationship between the two nations. 

On Wednesday, a group of Republican senators called on Trump to suspend negotiations for a U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear agreement.

They cited Khashoggi’s death, as well as Riyadh’s policies toward Lebanon and Yemen, as cause for “serious concerns about the transparency, accountability and judgment of current decision-makers.”

Although the Turkish announcement Wednesday appeared to partly illuminate what happened to Khashoggi, several central questions remain, including who ordered his killing and whether the crown prince was aware of the operation. While Riyadh has painted the killing as a rogue plot, Western officials say it is unlikely that something this complex could have been carried out without Mohammed’s knowledge.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Wednesday that his government would take “necessary measures” against those responsible for the journalist’s death. 

“So long as those who are responsible and the circumstances around the killing are not made public, released and evaluated, we will go on demanding the truth,” he said.

Zeynep Karatas in Istanbul and Kevin Sullivan in Riyadh contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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